Sunday, October 09, 2016

The Gnome and I

I sit in the library of the MIT Humanities Library and struggle to think of questions that will stimulate a real conversation rather than a reprised performance of every interview with Prof Noam Chomsky. “Bring a fresh perspective to it,” my daughter advised, over a flurry of WhatsApp messages. “Ask him if he believes linguistics scholars should engage in teaching new language learners,” said my husband over email, reflecting his own strongly held opinions about linking scholarship to practice.

But as I trawl through the hundreds—thousands—of articles, interviews, videotaped conversations, reviews and criticisms featuring the most famous dissident of them all, I am more and more daunted. I have been given 25 minutes, which I might be able to stretch into half an hour, and I feel burdened by the intensity of my need to make the conversation interesting as it might be polite.

So let’s begin with my own perspective. I was introduced to Chomsky not in the newspapers or through a political space, but in a journalism classroom, through his collaborative work with Edward Hermann, a package of ideas that stripped away some of our idealism about the Western liberal press. This work opened our eyes to the nexus between power and money, ownership and control, and how it all worked in the service of entrenched corporate and political interests. Initially, he was this faraway radical figure who stood out in American academia with his alignment to the left, much further left than any “left-leaning liberal media”. In doing so, he was closer in spirit to the left movements in India, and over time, his politics articulated itself in response to issues in the global south. In later years we began seeing his name appear on statements protesting a variety of incursions on civil liberties, on letters taking a position against this government action or another, not just in the US but overseas, closer and closer to home: Kashmir, Gujarat, and earlier this year, the events on JNU campus.

He’s been labelled the most famous political dissident of our times. Never mind the gradual erosion of his theory of universal grammar and the idea that human beings have an innate capacity for language—most recently, in a scathing treatise by Tom Wolfe that Chomsky dismisses as a not-so-thinly veiled attack on his politics. Over the years, Noam Chomsky has grown into this larger-than-life figure who represented everything that was right about academia, the coming together of the intellectual life and political and civic activism, the possibility of speaking truth to power even when working within its structures.

It was actually when I read about Tom Wolfe’s criticism in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that I decided to explore the possibility of recording an interview with Prof Chomsky for Bol Hyderabad (UoH’s campus community radio station), given that I was on the campus where he continues to occupy an office and a not insignificant part of the intellectual imagination. I learned from the article that Chomsky always responds to email and is extremely approachable, so I thought, why not, I’ll just send him an email. Sure enough, he responded within the hour saying he would be happy to meet. It took a few more emails back and forth before we could find a time, given his extensive travel and speaking schedule.

And so I arrived in his office on the eighth floor of the silver and brick Stata Centre on MIT Campus, which houses the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Bev, his secretary, is friendly and welcoming but obviously protective of the 88-year-old celebrity she has been charged with assisting. Her cocker spaniel wanders around the narrow corridors that lead to Prof Chomsky’s office and stops to drink from a bowl near her desk.  “Noam’s running a bit late—and he apologises for making you wait,” she says, as she looks up with a smile. Her desk is surrounded by “Gnome” paraphernalia, amusing nods to his rock star status. “But he won’t be more than ten minutes. Would you like some water while you wait?”

I wander around the space, peering at the framed posters on the wall that recall landmark protests over the years: Vietnam, East Timor, Iraq. In his room, which is in a bit of disarray because books and boxes are being moved around, two young people from Colombia wait to get a photograph and a book signed. Bev shows me into the next room, apologizing for the disarray and suggesting that we’d be more comfortable there.

Shortly after, Noam Chomsky arrived and after the photo-taking and signing, joined me at the small circular table in the room where I was waiting. He listened, smiling and patient, to my introduction, which in retrospect seemed rather superfluous. He is someone who doesn’t need an explanation for why one wants to interview him. He already knows. And he probably knows all the questions as well. Despite this, he engaged with mine seriously and at length. He spoke quietly and firmly (I was worried at times about my recorder picking up his voice) but took his time with each question. We spoke about the separation of intellectual or disciplinary inquiry from political engagement, the ways in which academics could do both, the opportunities that classrooms provide for sensitizing young minds to the need for political change without encroaching on instructional time and space. He has often commented that the intellectual questions (of linguistics and philosophy, in his case) are far more interesting than the social and political ones, but “unfortunately, the world outside won’t go away, so it demands my attention”.

His name is often attached to petitions and letters demanding explanation or justice, and I was curious to know how he chooses which issues to align himself with. “How do you decide which ones to sign?” Obviously, it’s impossible to know exactly what is going on in every corner of the world. “Well, you build up a network of people you trust, and you depend on them for information,” he said. And so we have newspaper headlines that proclaim Chomsky’s support for the student movement at JNU or UoH, giving some measure of global visibility and bringing it into the network of left-informed protest movements worldwide.

There’s no denying that Chomsky has been very lucky in having the space that he does, within MIT and within American academia in general, to create a platform for dissent and protest. His job has never been under threat, despite what might be seen as conflicts of interest between the University’s mission and his own. The early success and visibility, arguably, afforded by his work in linguistics created a platform for the dissemination of his political views—although Chomsky emphasizes that he began taking a political position and writing about it as a teenager.
We wind through his hopes (he has quite a bit) and anxieties (mostly to do with climate change) about the state of the world, and my time seems to have gone all soon as Bev shows up at the door, and Prof Chomsky gets up, his age now evident in his movement. But I can’t let him go without claiming my own Gnome-memento, so I ask Bev if she would do the honors.

“Let’s get you in front of Bertrand,” she says, and Noam obligingly walks back into his cluttered room.

I confess I had read a lot of interviews and essays about Noam Chomsky before my own short interaction (which you will soon be able to listen to on Bol Hyderabad). But Gary Marcus, writing in the New Yorker, said it best: “None of the questions Chomsky has posed has yet been fully answered, to his satisfaction or to anybody else’s, but no scholar of the mind has ever been more influential. Chomsky may not always have the right answers. But he has always had the wisdom to pose the right questions.”


Sumana Kasturi said...

Congratulations! This is a big deal, even though you make it sound matter of fact. Looking forward to listening to the interview and the "fresh perspective"!

Anonymous said...

Very exciting and a very big deal. Love the quote at the end. NR